hostory of myanmar (burmese) pottery

The History of Ceramic Pottery
 in Myanmar (Burma)

history of myanmar (Burma) pottery


Extracted from “Burmese Ceramics” by Sumarah Adhyatman
and published by The Ceramic Society of Indonesia, 1985

Nothing has ever been published on Burmese ceramics although the name Martaban, an ancient port in Southern Myanmar has lent itself to a group of large dark glazed earthenware and stoneware jars. A revised edition of the book TEMIPAYAN MARTAVANS concerning martaban jars found in Indonesia which was published in August 1984 by the Ceramic Society of Indonesia contains pictures and references to present production of Burmese jars in Upper Burma.

On a trip to Burma in November 1984 the author and her husband T K Adhyatman visited the archaeological sites in Pagan and some traditional kiln sites in Twante near Rangoon, Pegu, Sagaing and in Shwe Nyein in Mandalay District. We were not able to visit Martaban and Moulmein as the area is declared off limits for visitors, Some interesting finds can he reported. 

The Kingdoms

Several centuries before Christ the Mons - who probably came from Burma (?? ~ Webmaster) - settled down on the estuaries between the Salween and Sittaung rivers. Their settlement area is known as Suvannabhumi or the Golden Land2 from descriptions in Chinese and Indian text. A coastal town of Suvannabhumi is Kalasapura or ‘City of Pots’ mentioned in the Indian Kathasaritsagara of the 11th century.

About 2000 years ago the Pyu people, a Tibeto-Burman tribe settled in Upper Burma, their first capital established in Sri Ksetra near present day Prome. A fragmentary Sanskrit inscription recently found at Sri Ksetra refers to Kalasapura four times in a manner inferring that it was conquered or entered into a special relationship with the Pyus around the end of the 7th century. To be of economic or strategic use to the Pyus, Kalasapura would have been placed either near the mouth of the Salween river in the Martaban-Moulmein area, or near the mouth of the Irrawaddy.

Around the 8th century the Pyus relocated their capital north to Halin in the region of Shwebo. At approximatelv the same time the Tai people were pressing southwards from their ancestral home in Yunnan. As a part of the powerful Xan-ch’ao dynasty they attacked Halin in 832 AD and carried the people into slavery.
It was also in the 9th century that the Myamma people from the China-Tibet border (who are the present Bamars) first made their appearance. They made Pagan a fortified town from where they could control the lrrawaddv and Sittaung river valleys as well as the trade routes between China and India. The first Burmese empire was founded when King Anawrahta conquered the Mon capital of Thaton in 1057 AD. However the Mon culture was accepted in the Burmans capital and the Mon language was used in royal inscriptions and the Theravada Buddhist religion was predominant.

The golden age of Pagoda building in Pagan started under King Kyanzittha (1085-1113), and in the 12th century Pagan was named “the city of the four million pagodas”. In this period there is evidence that the Mons of Lower Burma amid Tenasserim were involved in trade with Java. A Javanese inscription of 1021 AD mentions Remen or Mon ships visiting ports at the mouth of the Brantas river and at Tuban in East Java. Based on Burmese Palace chronicles Pagan also had relations with the Melayu kingdom in Jambi, Sumatra around the 12th century4. A Burmese Buddhist priest was sent at the king of Melayu’s request to translate Buddhist text He later married a Melayu princess and settled down in Sumatra.

In the middle of the 13th century the empire was threatened by the Shans, descendants of the Tais in Northern Burma and the Mongol army of Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan and his forces from Central Asia had occupied the Nan-ch’ao empire in Yunnan. In 1287, when Pagan refused the payment of tribute they were subjugated by the Mongols. It was reported that the court of Pagan fled to Tala (Twante) before the advance of the Mongols.

After the fall of Pagan Burma was divided into several States for almost 300 years. In Lower Burma the Mons founded the Kingdom of Pegu and Tenasserim was lost to the Tais (Siamese from Ayuthia) during a mid-14th century invasion. 

Arrival of the Europeans

In the 15th century the Europeans arrived in Burma. In 1435, a Venetian merchant Nicolo di Conti visited Pegu and in 1489 the Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama discovered the sea-route from Europe to India. In 1519 Antony Correa arrived in Martaban and signed a trade and settlement treaty with the vassal state of Pegu. But King Tabenshweti of Pegu would not tolerate the presence of the Portuguese in Martaban and laid siege to the town in 1539. He got the support of 700 Portuguese who later maintained their hold on Martaban as a trading settlement until 1613.

There were probably close relations between the Kingdom of Pegu and the Aceh (Achin) state in North Sumatra in the 16th century. Burmese sources5 mention that the king of Pegu once sent his solders to help the King of Aceh fight against the Portuguese who had conquered Malacca in 1512. As a token of gratitude the Aceh king sent Pegu a boat full with fragrant wood (sandal wood?) which was used to decorate a Pagoda. Aceh at that time was a significant commercial centre as well as a centre of Islamic learning for many Muslim and Indian merchants and scholars. In the 13th century there might have also been intensive trade between Pegu and the earlier Islamic kingdom of Samudra Pasai in North Sumatra which was defeated by Aceh in the 16th century. Samudra Pasai had been an important link in the trade between India and Arabia through which Islam had penetrated into Indonesia.

The second Burmese Empire conquered the Thai kingdoms of Chieng Mai and Ayuthia in 1569 and extended down to Tavoy and Prome. In 1613 Syriam, the stronghold of the Portuguese, was sacked by the Burmese. During the 17th century, the Dutch, British and French set up trading companies in ports along the coast of Burma, but the Dutch trade was the most intensive. When the capital was moved to Ava Syriam was retaken by the Mons in 1752 with the help of the French. So the Second Burmese Empire was dissolved. However soon after Alaungpaya, a Burman from Shwebo founded the Third Burmese Empire. He defeated the Mons and burned down the French and British trading posts. Mon resistance than ceased entirely. Ayuthia was again attacked in 1767 and Thai artists and craftsmen were taken to the Capital of Ava. Tenasserim was taken in 1760 and remained from then on in Burmese hands.

Border incidents between Burma and British India increased and in 1826 the Burmese were forced to cede Arakan and Tenasserim; Assam and Manipur border areas were taken earlier by the British. In the second Anglo-Burmese war (1852) Lower Burma was conquered by the British. In 1886 Burma was annexed as a province of British India (this was a major irritant to the Burmese as they had to deal with British officials from India instead of directly with the British Monarchy ~ webmaster). After the second world war Burma gained its independence as the Union of Burma on January 4th 1948.

Ceramic Trade 13th-17th century

Martaban and Mergui, harbours on the seacoast, might have been important links in the ceramic trade between China and India during the Song dynasty (907-1279), and possible also in the ceramic trade with Southeast Asia through Malacca. Song ceramics have been found in the Tenasserim area and from shipwrecks offshore.

There were two well-defined routes7. The earliest and most continuous until the present time is the overland route from Yunnan. This route passed through the Taiping river joining the Bhamo-Myitkyina road about twenty miles north of Bhamo from where goods were shipped by boat down the Irrawaddv river to the delta for trans-shipment to India, Southeast Asia and other countries.

Another land route became important with the rise of Ayuthia in the middle of the 14th century. As a great trading centre Ayuthia was an essential link in the China trade. Goods were trans-shipped by junk or sent overland either to Pranburi or to Kui on the western shore of the Gulf of Siam for transport by caravan across the narrow isthmus to Tenasserim and thence downstream in small river boats to the port of Mergui. Another overland route connected Sawankhalok with Martaban and passed through Raheng (Tak) and Mesot (Mae Sot).

During this period the trade was principally in the hands of Muslim merchants who shipped the goods to India and further West. Samudra Pasai in North Sumatra was then an important trading centre in the India and Middle East trade with China. The pigment for the first Chinese blue and white ware in the 14th century was transported by sea-route from the Persian Gulf by way of Aceh.

The pattern of trade in Southeast Asia during the Yuan dynasty (1280—1368) was marked by the increasing activity of the Chinese traders. This accelerated the final disintegration of Sriwijaya and promoted new commercial centres in Java, Northern Sumatra and along the Eastern coast of the Peninsula such as Pattani, Ligur and Ayuthia. As the former Sriwijaya’s ports degenerated into piratical hideouts it compelled trading ships to avoid sailing through the Straits. The Chinese therefore chose to trade with ports along the Eastern coast of Siam and the Malay Peninsula and thus revitalised the use of the trans-peninsular routes across the narrow isthmus. They preferred to come to either Mergui and Tenasserim on the Western coast or other ports like Pasai, Sumudra and Perlak in North Sumatra.

The town of Martaban was first mentioned in an old Burmese inscription of 1326 where it is called ‘Muttama’, the name which until now is often used by the Burmese (Martaban is now named Moattama - webmaster). The name Martaban might be derived from the Tai names for Mergui and Tenasserim, “Marit” and “Tanan”. In view of the fact that Martaban was nominally under Sukothai hegemony from 1281 to 1314 and that the area from Martaban to Tenasserim was under Ayuthian control from the mid-14th to soon after the mid-15th centuries, it is possible that the terms “Martaban” or “Maritanao” were used to describe the coastal region from the Salween river to the lsthmus of Kra.

In the 14th century Martaban was already a busy harbour. It was mentioned by Ibnu Batuta an Arab traveller in 1350 in connection with large jars “... Martabans or huge jars, filled with pepper, citron and mango, all prepared with salt, as for a sea voyage”.

The demand of the Arab, Indian and later the European traders for large jars in which to store liquid and foodstuffs was met by the supply at Martaban, most probably by the supply of local jars. Historical sources mostly refer to the fact that the jars were produced locally8. So the generic name of martavan or martaban jars were indeed first applied to the jars produced and used at the Martaban site. It was later used for all kinds of large earthenware and stone-ware jars from different origins. For instance it is reported that presently Upper India also produce large black jars which they call ‘Martaban”9. The import of Chinese ceramics consisted of porcelain especially celadon dishes which are called “gori”10. At present celadon wares are still called “martabani” in the Middle East.

By the middle of the 15th century Ayuthia had lost control of Martaban, and the Mon capital of Pegu of the Pegu kingdom dominated the ports of Bassein, Syriam and Martaban which were well known to Chinese merchants by this time. Peguan merchants, mostly Moslems, traded with India, Malacca and Indonesia. That considerable intercourse subsisted between the Peguans and Malays before the arrival of the Europeans is testified by the fact that the Portuguese found a considerable number of Peguans settled at Malacca when they captured it in 1511.

The first eyewitness account of local production and export of martaban jars was by the Portuguese Duarte Barbosa who reported the trade of Pegu with India, Malacca, Sumatra and Siam in the 16th century. He noted that “In this town of Martaban are made very large and beautiful porcelain vases, and some of glazed earthenwares of a black colour, which are highly valued among the Moors, and they export them as merchandise”.

Apparently the jars were not only used as containers of foodstuffs but were also a popular export commodity by itself. As far as their contents are concerned it was repeatedly mentioned in travel reports that the jars were used to contain water, oil and salted food for long sea voyages and for the export of Nipah arak (a type of palm wine). Apart from foodstuffs the Peguans exported gold, rubies, musk, tin and martaban jars to Malacca which they then exchanged for cloth, sandalwood, pepper, cloves, silk, porcelain and iron pans. Dutch sources in the 17th century mention that the Peguans brought their wares also to Aceh and to Banten on the Northwestern coast of Java which was later conquered by the Islamic kingdom of Demak in Central Java. This site might have been linked in Chinese ceramic trade since the 9th/I0th century as late Tang sherds were found buried in the surrounding area.

Since 1635 the VOC had offices in Syriam and Ava; the Dutch settled in Arakan in 1625. The trade of the martaban jars of Pegu were nearly all shipped from Pegu12 and most probably those were indeed Burmese jars and not Chinese. Historical reports by Lintschoten (1598) and by Pierre de Laval (1610) mentioned the manufacture of martaban jars at Martaban, while in 1664 the Englishman Anderson reported on the more intensive Dutch trade and on the goods that were traded in Pegu “many sorts of clothing are sent to Pegu a port in Banggala, which returns rubies and readie money also Martavans Jarres”. It is inconceivable that the Burmese should import jars from China where they were already producing glazed jars in the 11th century if not earlier (see later). Besides that the total amount of jars imported through the city of Batavia and the Nusantara archipelago is only 1,300 while 1,140 jars were channelled to other markets in Asia; in records about the trade of the VOC in the 18th century no mention had been made of the sending of martaban jars to Indonesia As the jars found in Indonesia from the 17th to the 19th century far exceeds this amount, they must have been shipped through traditional trade routes other than Bhamo in Upper Burma. In recent years many Chinese martavan jars were recovered from sunken ships on the China route.

The role of Martaban itself as a great harbour probably stopped after the Burmese attack in 1613, although the jars continued to be made. A report by Alexander Hamilton in 1727 mentioned that “Martavan in former times was one of the most flourishing towns for trade in the East, having the benefit of a noble River. which afforded a good Harbour for Ships of the greatest Burden.. But after the Barmans conquered it they sunk a Number of Vessels full of Stones in the Mouth of the River so that now it is unnavigable except for small vessels”. He further mentioned that they still make earthenware. “They make earthenware there still, and glaze them with Lead-oar. I have seen some Jars made there, that could contain two Hogheads of Liquor”. This report was again supported by the Jesuit Pimenta early in the 17th century14. He wrote “Some of the Peguans in this time had with the Siamites help brought the castle of Murmulan into their possession whom the king besieged a year together ... And thus the whole tract from Pegu to Martaban and Murmulan was brought to a wildernesse”.
The Dutch closed their offices in Burma around 1680, but most probably the jars continued to he transported for a tong time along the traditional sea routes between Burma, Malacca and Indonesia.


Early wares

The old Mon sites reveal a pottery tradition related to those of the Pyus of Central Burma whose rouletted pots dating between the 1st and 7th centuries are well known. Burmese archaeologists trace the techniques to Arikamedu in East India. It is possible that the technique of glazing was introduced into Burma during that period. Chinese accounts mention of the glazed tile walls of the capital of the Pyus.

Twante in southern Burma seems to be already an important pottery centre in the Mon period. After the conquest of the Mons in 1057AD the Burmans seem to have taken over their pottery techniques. Mon pottery from Twante appears at Pagan in archaeological excavations and Burmese archaeologists also believe that glazing techniques came from the south. Many of the temples and Pagodas at Pagan are decorated with glazed earthenware tiles in varying shades of green and blue-green, white and yellow-brown. These are Jataka tiles which are Buddhist “birth tiles” depicting the various birth stories of the Buddha. Glazed carved stone-tiles were also found. A common Burmese motif seems to be the lotus flower which is found in stone-tiles as well as decorating Burmese ceramics.

According to Dr. Pamela Gutman pottery types are depicted in frescoes and relief sculpture of the temples. The most informative might be the Nagavon temple built in the 11th century. Some of the jars are remarkably similar to the “Hindu Javanese” or Kwantung-type jars of the 8th-10th centuries shown in the book Ternpayan-Martavan. The jars are broad based but some have rounded bases. Most are sealed probably with cloth or pigs-bladder covers which are attached to lugs between a half and three-quarters the height of the jars. From the plaques around the base of the Ananda temple built around 1160 AD the names and functions of various types of jars are known. Three main types are named: the Tron, a storage vessel which is more rectangular than Tumbay the ordinary pot. The Tumbay is a small round pot with a narrow neck. The third type is the Klas which is the kalasa type known at Angkor and in Central Java. It is much larger than the Tumbav and rather more ovoid in shape. A series of Klas are depicted filled with foliage recalling the traditional Indian symbol of Purnakalasa the “Vase of Plenty”.

In the historical Museum of Pagan are several types of earthenware jars found during excavations in 11th to 12th century sites near the temples. Three are glazed and one is unglazed. ‘the unglazed jar is about fifty cm high, ovoid with a rounded base, relatively narrow neck and a flared mouth, the lip unfortunately is broken. Unglazed red burnished earthenware kendis are also found. Two are elegantly-shaped with long thin spouts and the third is a bottle-jar shape with a cup-shaped mouth.

The glazed jars consist of three types. One type is of a similar shape to the unglazed jar, pear-shaped with a tall flaring neck and everted lip but with a flat base. It is covered with a dripped olive green glaze. The second jar has a round bulbous body, a shorter and straight neck and everted lip and has a degraded white glaze. The third jar is very interesting as similar types are found in Indonesia. It is 69 cm tall with a small foot, narrow thickened mouth, incised bands at the neck and three horizontal grooved loop-handles (one is broken). It is covered by a degraded black glaze until the lower body which is reddish burnt. This might be the type of jar described as the “Vase of Plenty” (see above). This shape is also a typical Chinese shape from the Song dynasty (960-1279).
Chinese ceramic shapes might have influenced Burmese ceramics at that time. According to Mr U Bo Kay, the former Museum director and present consultant, many Chinese ceramics have been found at the site, he has shown us a Chekiang celadon jarlet from the late Song-Yuan period. Many identical black jars in various sizes and green and white sherds have been found in excavations. Indeed the site near the Temples which are dated to the 1lth-13th century are littered with green, olive green, white and black glazed earthenware sherds as well as Chinese sherds and unglazed pottery. The pottery sherds are identical to the temple tiles and the jars in the Pagan Museum. We have to thank Mr U Bo Kay who gave us some samples found at the site. Among the sherds are also a piece of a Yuan celadon bowl from the Putian kilns in Fujian, South China and a piece of celadon from the Kalong kilns of North Thailand.

Glazed ceramic sherds are especially found in abundance at Otaintaung (“Potters Hill”) about 550 meters east of the Sulamani temple and around Myingaba village. We were not able to visit the site but will quote from an unpublished Burmese report by the Burma Historical Commission15. It mentions the ruins of a beehive-shaped kiln for glost firing near Myingaba village. The report investigated the glazing of bricks, tiles, votive tables and sandstone plaques. The glaze used was of a matte opaque type, based on lead and coloured by copper, tin and vanadium oxides. There are two colours, green and yellow. The green colour varied from faintly green, bluish green to bright green, the different shades being obtained by varying the quantities of tin and copper oxides. All the materials for making the glaze and the colouring oxides are available locally. The temperature employed is estimated to vary from 900 to 1,050 C. It is further said that the glazed surfaces appeared to be of strong texture and possessed a high degree of fitness with the clay body in spite of the crazing effect noticed in almost all the glazed surfaces. From this report and as is evident from the excavated ceramic jars and sherds Burmese ceramics have to be classified as earthenware.

Another interesting find of Burmese ceramics datable to the 14th-16th century, was in Tak province in Thailand near the Burmese border in July 1984. The Burmese ceramics were found together with Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai wares. In the report "The Tak Hilltop Burials" by The Ceramics Research Project of the Chiang Mai University they were mentioned as unidentifiable. But after John Shaw from the Chiang Mai University on a visit to Jakarta saw the white and green Burmese sherds from Pagan in January this year, he was convinced that they are identical to the green and white glazed wares from Tak. As mentioned above Tak and Mesot (Mae Sot) are on the ancient overland route which connects Martaban and Sawankhalok since the 14th centurv. The finds of Burmese ceramics in that area is therefore not impossible.

Where would the kilns be situated in Burma? Most probably in the Southern part - Pagan was subjugated by the Mongols in 1287 AD and the Pagan court fled to Tala ("Twante"). It is noted in historical sources that Queen Acaw ordered the Cakyap potters of the Tala circle to supply pots16. If not earlier known in the South, at that time the technique of producing green and white tin glazed ceramics could have been introduced. Another likely area would be Papun ("Hpapun") in the Karen State which is well known for its green ware and is considered to be the best pottery centre in Burma.

In the month of January 1984 many large black jars (~ 1 meter high), medium sized (~ 55 cm) and small jars (~ 30 cm), which are usually called Thai-type jars, were found in antique shops in Jakarta or peddled by Jakarta antique dealers. They were reported to be heirlooms from Aceh in North Sumatra and the local people believed that they date from the Aceh Kingdom (l6th-19th century) or earlier. The small jars must have been used as oil containers, they smell nearly all of coconut oil.

It was the first time that we found Jars of this type with a green and white feldspathic glaze. They share the same characteristics as the black ones: a heavy earthenware body which can burn a bright terracotta red or a purplish colour, plain or with slightly grooved loop-handles, incised bands at the neck, the glaze often dripped reaching only till the lower body, and many decorated with a yellow slip. The bases are flat, and the joint at the centre body of large jars is clearly visible. The glazes are black to dark brown with varying shades of reddish brown and yellow brown. In the book Tempayan Martavans they were grouped under Thailand as Thai-type jars.  However as the Pagan jar and the recent products of Burma showed identical characteristics, we believe that they are Burmese Jars and belong to the real “Martaban” or “Pegu” jars. Some styles of decoration are still being produced. The jars with a slip surface and a roulette-type design do not fall within this group, but they are most probably Burmese. A pipe with the same clay body and similar decoration was found in Mandalay, and according to the local people they come from a kiln in the Mandalay area where they also produce jars. 

Present Production

In Burma almost all of the daily containers are of unglazed and glazed earthenware: plastic or cement containers have not yet conquered the market (not even to the present day - Webmaster). Most likely the manufacture of pottery, their shapes and styles of decoration have not changed much since early times. The Burmese still produce only glazed and unglazed earthenware. In general pottery is an occupation pursued only in dry-weather months when there are no agricultural operations going on, but there are a few traditional pottery centres which manufacture pots the year round. The pottery villages which we have visited are Twante in the south, Sagalng, and Shwe.Nyein in the Shwebo region, Upper Burma.

The Shans from the Shari State are considered the best potters and Kengtung and Mongkung are traditional pottery centres. Green glazed ware of a light green colour are still produced here. But the wares from Papun in the Karen State are considered to be the best. Mr Saosai Long Mengrai, the last descendant of the kings of the Shan State19, informed us that according to legend a Chinese merchant met with an accident there and he settled down and taught the people to make pottery in the Chinese tradition. Other traditional pottery centres are in Pyinmana, Tavoy and Bassein in the south. In Bassein they produce black plain jars without handles20. In the Rangoon market one can buy pottery from Twante, Pegu, Pyinmana. Sagaing and Shwebo and maybe from other regions as well.


The traditional paddle and anvil technique for unglazed earthenware pots is still used at Sagaing near Mandalav. The pots are usually decorated with striations out of which the patterns are cut on a wooden paddle. As in many parts in Indonesia the manufacture is only done by women. The pots are fired in an open grassfire and are normally used for drinking water.
One may see them alongside the road, topped by a cup to slake the thirst of the weary traveller. They are also decorated with colourful paintings of flowers mostly in red which is a festive colour, or faces, which is a recent innovation.


In Twante, Pegu and Shwe Nyein they make glazed and unglazed wares and here they use the potter’s wheel. It consists of a simple wooden wheel which rotates on a wooden rod stuck in the ground. The potter rotates the wheel with his foot while seated, and has usually an assistant who helps turn the wheel.
Twante is a traditional pottery centre since early times and is situated about 30 km southeast of Rangoon across the river. There are public jeeps which bring you to the village along a badly-paved road. It produces now only black glazed ovoid jars, flower-pots and small bowls; also unglazed jars, pots and bottle kendis. The plain glazed jars without handles are of three sizes, the smallest is ~10 cm high, the medium sized ~30 cm and the largest is around 60 cm. The clay body usually burns a bright terracotta. The unglazed jars are burnished and are of rounder shape and equipped with a cover. They all have everted rounded lips and are decorated with incised bands at the neck; some have groovings or tiny buttons around the shoulder. Most of the jars have a vitreous glaze but some are dull-glazed which might be caused by a lower firing temperature.
Although Twante at present does not produce green glazed wares they might have produced them in the past as there are many Shan potters in Twante. According to information there are still about 30 kilns in Twante with a production of about 500 jars a day. Along the road and in Twante you see large black and red-brown jars which are produced in the pottery villages in the Mandalav province in Upper Burma. The jars are transported down the river Irrawaddy. However based on historical sources Burmese archaeologists believe that Twante was the ceramic centre which produced the famous Pegu jars.

Red clay for the pottery is taken from the surrounding area and is mixed with dried river mud. Since a few years ago they use grinding mills to pulverize the clay and the glaze material. The glaze material comes from the Shan States. According to J G Scott (1921, 278), in the Shan States the slag, called “Chaw” or “Bhwet” from the argentiferous lead mines is used for glazing. It is yellow and has as much as 90% lead in it. After it is pounded up it is mixed with clay and water in which rice has been boiled. To obtain a green glaze, blue-stone (sulphate of copper) is pounded up, and mixed with the “Bhwet” and rice-water. This description is still valid for the present production.

The large jars are manufactured from two parts: the first half is shaped as a flowerpot and when it is in the leather stage (after being left for several days), the upper half is set up with the coil method and then turned on the wheel. The whole procedure takes only a few minutes. One potter can finish about 50 jars a day. In Twante no slip is used, the finished pieces are dipped into the glaze and a small amount is then tossed around inside it.

The kilns in Twante, Pegu and Shwe Nyein are identical. It is a cross-draft kiln, beehive-shaped with a domed roof, made of unfired bricks and mud with a sloping floor. There is no division between the fire and firing chamber. All the kilns have a centrifuge in the back wall and some have additional smaller openings beside it. The kiln is supported at each side by a high brick wall and each is protected by a bamboo roof. The largest kiln in Twante is about 4x3x2m high on the inside which can fire about 500 pieces.

Tubular pontils and spur pontils are used for stacking. Some pontils have three spurs but the larger ones with a diameter of about 17 cm have four spurs. When asked why they did not use the spur pontils for stacking the bowls to save space, they answered that it would leave unsightly marks on the inside. We were told that the firing including the cooling period takes about 10 days. The firing temperature is probably about 1,000°C. We were fortunate to be able to take pictures of a kiln which had been opened the day before.


In Pegu there are only a few small private kilns. We visited one place which produces only small vases, jarlets and flowerpots. The clay comes from Twante and the glaze from the Shan State. Here they use the yellow slip decoration and it is interesting to note that the decoration of stripes found on the 11th century Pagan sherds is still used on the jarlets of Pegu. Tubular and spur pontils are used for stacking.

Shwe Nyein

Shwe Nyein is one of the four pottery villages at the lrrawaddv river side north of Shwebo. It is not difficult to reach, there are English speaking guides at Mandalav who can take you there. In fact according to our guide John Aung Khaing we have shown him how easy it was to reach the pottery villages! We were not only the first visitors who wanted to see Shwe Nyein but it was also his first visit to this area.

The town Shwebo is about 189 km from Mandalay, and from Shwebo it is another 30 km to Kyaukmyaung on the Irrawaddy river. The road from Mandalay is in good condition and on the way to Kyaukmyaung you see bullock-carts loaded with huge martaban jars. As there is only a bullock-cart trail from Kyaukmyaung to Shwe Nyein one has to take a motorboat trip for about fifteen minutes to reach Shwe Nyein.

On the banks of the Irrawaddy we saw white Pagodas all lined with gleaming dark martaban jars. There were also large boats stacked with pottery. The smaller pieces are put on the top deck and the large jars stowed below. It was reported in the early twentieth century that the jars, called “Ali Baba jars” were transported on bamboo rafts. You still see large bamboo rafts topped with small houses of bamboo leaves floating on the river.

The village Shwe Nyein has 1,800 inhabitants and there are 60 active kilns. The entire village is busy making pottery. We could watch the whole activity from digging the clay to the transport of the wares on bullock-carts or boats. Pottery is everywhere, in all kinds of stages, from green-ware, glazed but unfired, finished products and discards. When watching the villagers working as busy as bees in a beehive, one could not help feel being transported back into the past - to the days when Martaban was an important harbour and these jars were transported to the Archipelago, India and the Middle East. The villagers were very friendly and one of them, an old headman informed us that they came down from Malar, a village north of Shwe Nyein, because the clay deposit there had dried out. He thinks that his ancestors settled down in this area about 200 years ago from the south. They had to move north because there had been a war.

The main production of Shwe Nyein consists of jars up to 1 meter, small and large bowls, flowerpots, and vases. They also accept orders for wall tiles and special shapes. The method of manufacture of the jars is the same as in Twante but here they mix three kinds of clay: red and yellowish clay is dug from the surrounding area, and white limestone comes from Pyinmana. The clay-body burns a purplish colour and is more compact than that of Twante. The glaze material comes from the Shan State. It is especially interesting to watch the making of a large jar. The sides are shaved off with a sharp bamboo ring. Before carving the small foot, a fire is burnt inside the jars for several hours to harden the clay and the piece is finished the next day.

The jars are conical shaped but the shoulders are not as wide as the early jars and the mouth is also larger; however some styles of decoration still continues for instance the buttons around the mouth and the rosette motif. Bulbous jars are still being made. The attractive bright red-brown colour is a recent innovation which is achieved by mixing the glaze from the Shan State with battery powder!

Only the pieces and decorations which will become yellow are covered with a white slip. The dual colour of yellow and dark brown known from Northern Thai wares is also used here.

Most jars are equipped with horizontal grooved handles. From a long coil of clay short pieces are cut oft which are put in pairs. One pair forms one handle, both ends get a patch of clay to fix the handles on the jar with thumb-pressed ends. The glaze will not entirely cover the hollow between the two strips of clay so that the handles are slightly grooved.

The kilns are about 4x6x3 meters high from the inside. We were fortunate to see how they stack a kiln. The kiln is lighted very ingeniously by placing two small mirrors at the entrance which reflects the sunrays and project them inside. Some also use torches for additional light. First they stack the large jars which are carried by two men to the kiln. These are stacked at the farthest end on huge tubular pontils over one meter tall. Smaller pieces are grouped around it. The bowls which are glazed till the lower body are put in separately while the bowls which are glazed just over the mouth rim are stacked on top of each other or lip to lip. A rectangular opening at a man’s height is left in the brick wall which shuts off the kiln, through which fire wood is added. The firing lasts for three days and the cooling period is also three days.

A potter earns 6 kyat a day which is about Rp 780. The largest jar cost 50 kyat at the site, the market price is 100 kyat or about Rp 13,000. At Kyaukmyaung we watched the unloading of the jars: the men unloaded the jars from the lower deck, but at ‘the gangplank the jars were carried ashore on the heads of girls.

In conclusion we would like to note that the study of early Burmese ceramics and kiln sites would greatly contribute to the knowledge of Southeast Asian ceramics and the ceramic trade between Burma and Southeast Asian countries.

(Nowadays pottery is also manufactured in Yangon by "MPCL" - Webmaster)


1. We are very much indebted to the entire staff of the K.B.R.J., our Indonesian Embassy in Rangoon, for their assistance which greatly facilitated our trip. We want to mention especially Mr & Mrs Wibowo Ariadhi for their kindness and hospitality and Mrs Cynthia Moeljono for her skilful guidance to the kilns in Twante and Pegu. She was our interpreter at Twante and Pegu, and at Shwe-Nyein we were guided by a professional guide John Aung Khaing. Many thanks also to Mrs J Weck who made the maps, and to all our friends who have helped us in our research.
2.  burma., Apa Productions Ltd. 1984, 41.
3. Pamela Gutman, The Martaban Trade, 1978.
4.  We obtained this information from Dr U Bo Kay, consultant National Historical Museum at Pagan.
5.   Ibid.
6.  See Pamela Gutman. This was also mentioned by Dr U Tan Shwe from the Burmese Archaeological Research Institute.
7.  Pamela Gutman, also from Prof Dr Suebsaèng Promboon, The Siamese Maritime Trade, AD 1351-1511, Spafa Workshop, Cisarua, Indonesia 1984.
8.  S. Adhyatman, Abu Ridho, Tempayan-Martavans 2nd revised edition 1984, 63-66.
9.  G Scott, Burma, a handbook of Practical Information, London 1921, 278.
10. Volker 1971, 5. Green glazed ware like Chinese and Thai celadon are greatly prized in Burma.
11.   Abu Ridho found at Banten Lama as surface finds, 9th century sherds of white Chinese porcelain bowls of the Samara type, and Dr B McKinnon found identical sherds at Banten Girang.
12.  Volker 1971, 221.
13. Tempayan-Martavans 1984-49.
14. V C Scott O’Connor, The Silken East, Vol. II, 1904, 583.
15.  Pamela Gutman, opcit.
16.  Ibid
17. The information was received from Mr Saosei Long Mengrai, see footnote 19, it was also mentioned by J G Scott 1921, 278.
18.  This is a correction of the dating given in the book Tempayan-Martavans, which was the 16th-17th century.
19. We met Mr Mengrai when he was in Jakarta on a visit through the courtesy of Mr Bernard F D’Ambro­sio, counselor of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.
20.   burma, Apa Production 1984, 171.

Monday, August 15 2016